Developer Interview: Tomas Rampas on Volcanoids

by Taliesin Coward

Volcanoids is the first title of the independent studio of the same name. A novel take on base-building/survival games, players hunt for resources, fight foes, and upgrade and defend their drillship - a mobile base which can tunnel underground to travel to new locations, evade enemies and hide from the volcanic eruptions which regularly blast the surface of the game’s island. A fun and visually stylish game, Big Bytes and Small Nibbles is delighted to be able to present the following interview with Volcanoids’ Lead Designer Tomas Rampas.

Congratulations on the early access release of Volcanoids. It’s quite a unique looking game. How did this project start?

Thank you, so far the game is going very well and players are enjoying it. We got a lot of feedback and are working on new updates to reflect the biggest issues players have with the current game.

The project started after some time of experimenting with personal game projects. Ondrej Petrzilka [Volcanoids Lead Programmer - Ed] was working on his own engine and a sci-fi game and I was working on a small mobile logic game. At some point I gathered some concepts and ideas about how Volcanoids would work and met with Ondrej. He liked the idea and we agreed on developing it for several months to see where it went. All was progressing well, and soon we had a very basic untextured drillship with all the important features, such as traveling, building and production. At this point we decided to continue further and do our best to deliver a good game.

On your website, you say that you run on a private budget to ensure only the player community can have an impact on the direction of development. What are some of the influences which you feel can pull a game’s development ‘off course’ that you’re trying to avoid?

Publishers and investors often tend to make big changes in game design or dramatically adjust schedules for development milestones. All this has a huge effect on the quality of the game, and is often really hard to explain to the person that has the power to make the decision. You can often see players wondering how it was possible that the game they bought got released in that state, and they then usually blame the devs. I am sure the devs were very well aware of the situation, but had no choice as somebody above them decided the game goes out.

Some of the best and most influential games of all times have been made by small indie studios. What do you feel are some of the advantages and challenges of running a small studio?

We think it is a mixture of several elements. First would be that small teams go all in. By that we mean there are no eight-hour shifts, but simply “24/7”. People are personally very invested and try their very best. Another big bonus is the freedom of choice. Small teams can develop any game they want, no matter how crazy the idea sounds, while big studios tend to be very careful about how to invest the money and usually go with sequels or concepts that already proved to work well. The indie scene does not have the budget for epic cutscenes and AAA graphics, but can be a source of new ideas and game genres that would otherwise never appear.

Could you expand a bit on the roles of Lead Designer and artist, and Lead Programmer?

In small teams, the term “Lead” does not mean much since the person is usually the only one doing that job. But in general, lead means a senior position that has a lot of experience, skill and manages a team of people focused on some part of development, no matter if it’s programming or art. This person communicates with top management, other leaders and distributes the work to his/her team, and brings up issues the team has and needs to be solved - such as better production pipelines, low time budget, and stuff like that. In big companies there is no time to let everyone talk to everyone else, so leaders are basically representatives of a development branch.

Regarding community involvement, you’ve been extremely open about your development roadmap. Can you tell me a bit about this decision, and the impact it’s had on development so far?

We believe that, today, there is so much going on that it is a huge reward if somebody is willing to spend time watching our dev log, or reading about the game. So we decided to go all out and get rid of all possible boundaries and NDAs [non-disclosure agreements - Ed]. Richard Rampas, our Community Manager, is very open to anyone that would like to do a stream, video or just has a question about the game itself. The first versions were free and anyone could download it. There are so many games every day, that if a player decides to spend time playing our game, it means a lot to us and there should be no obstacles in the road. That’s also another reason why we don’t have an investor or publisher, because they would most likely stop us from doing this.

I noticed that Volcanoids uses the Unity engine. Why use this particular engine?

The main reason was probably because Ondrej, our programmer, knows C# and Unity seemed like the best option. Since he does all the implementation part, it was really up to him to decide. He liked the well done documentation, frequent updates and overall systems that Unity provides. Basically, he is able to look up a few lines of documentation and be done with a new feature by next day :D.

You say that Volcanoids is designed to solve issues in current survival games. Could you say what you believe some of these issues are, and how Volcanoids will address them?

We wanted to come up with a multiplayer survival game that has solutions to issues players have to face in other current survival games. To be more specific, the drillship concept is based on allowing players to protect their property while being offline. All you need to do is go underground and activate silent mode. This ensures nobody can raid your base when you can’t defend it. Another big issue is often bad performance and necessary server wipes that restart everyone’s progression. That is why the volcanic eruptions were added, to clear the surface map from everything players abandoned and left behind. In general, we hope that this will allow people with less time to get into the multiplayer survival genre, as they won’t have to start from scratch every other day.

I think the Steampunk theme is brilliant, and Volcanoids certainly has a striking and unique visual style which immediately catches the eye. How did you come to choose a Steampunk aesthetic, and how does that then influence game design?

We knew the game was going to have a drillship, and Steampunk was the best aesthetic that fitted the main theme of the game. A sci-fi drillship would look strange and probably outdated, and making the drillship look like it came from the present time would also feel kind of weird, so Steampunk was the way to go.The game design was not influenced very much. Maybe just that we had to adjust the power source, and overall feeling to make it more like a locomotive rather than a spaceship cockpit.

What were the most interesting elements of the game to create, as the devs?

The drillship itself. It has so many parts, systems and elements at all levels. By that I mean from programming, game design and art perspectives. We did many iterations of every single drillship part, to ensure everything blends well together and supports the overall idea. The drillship is basically a group of multiple modular systems that all move together as one body.

Is there anything in particular that we should keep an eye out for as the game moves to full release?

We are really looking forward to see how the multiplayer turns out, as the main features are built to solve the biggest PVP [Player-vs-Player - Ed.] issues. We can’t wait to see players form groups, hire others to join a crew and together operate drillships that travel around the island to fight other crews and their drillships.

One of my favourite features of movies like The Lord of the Rings was the ‘making of’ included on the discs. You have quite in-depth Dev Diaries. Have you thought of bundling them all up for inclusion with the game’s final release, and maybe even an artbook?

Yeah, it would be nice to have some start-to-finish summary of the development marathon. Our main reason for making the detailed Dev Diaries was to show we are consistent in the design and keep to the set roadmap. We are very well aware players are tired of early access survival games that go crazy after release and get abandoned or completely ruined by updates that make no sense. And that is why the development and dev diaries were made, to prove that even though the game is one-and-a-half years into development, it still stands on the same foundations that were explained in the very first dev diary video.

Finally, on a more general note, we’re seeing more and more ads for people to enrol in game-design courses (at least, we are in Australia). How did you get started in the industry?

I knew that I wanted to be a concept artist since high school, so all my steps and actions were directed towards getting to that profession. My high school was already focused on art, and when I got chance to go to a college I went for Masters in Production Design. I had heard many concept artists and designers studied product or industry design, because they will have to design stuff that works. Even if it’s a virtual world, it still has to look like it could work in the real one.

Once I was done with the university I started attending game events in the Czech Republic such as GDS in Prague. I got some connections there and eventually met Marek Rosa, the CEO of Keen Software House that is very well known for the Space Engineers game. When Marek hired me, it was for the position of level designer on Miner Wars. That was also where I met Ondrej (he got hired one week before me). Once the game was done, we started working on Space Engineers and I became artist and game designer. After that I got assigned to work on Medieval Engineers and eventually decided to leave and start working on Volcanoids. The impulse to start making our own game did not come right after we left Keen Software House: Ondrej and I worked for almost a year separately on our own projects and at some point met to discuss the Volcanoids idea. We have been working on Volcanoids ever since. ■

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